To be his master’s
GHOSTWRITING is not new,’’ writes Jennie Erdal in Ghosting: A Double Life . It might almost qualify as the oldest profession if prostitution had not laid prior claim.’’ For 15 years Erdal, a Scottish linguist and translator specialising in Russian, was the hand that penned London’s Quartet Books publisher Naim Attallah’s considerable body of literary work, everything from letters and reviews to a couple of critically acclaimed novels, in which the dashing main protagonist was closely modelled on Attallah’s rather generous image of himself.
When Erdal finally wrote a book under her own name revealing with considerable elegance, depth and humour this part symbiotic, part parasitic’’ relationship with her famous longterm employer, Erdal’s old university professor, a distinguished academic, told her former student she was no better than a common whore’’. Erdal thought that the two professions had a lot in common, both inhabiting the murky underworlds of secrecy, vanity and shame.
Ghosting makes it clear that Erdal’s ghostwriting career involved much more than simply turning literary tricks. It was thrilling, empowering, creatively challenging and, instead of making her a stranger to her own voice, turned her into an unquestionably good writer. Meanwhile she avoided questions from the curious about her line of work — editor? researcher? — settling, with some perverse enjoyment, on housewife.
The nameless protagonist of Robert Harris’s new thriller The Ghost is not quite in Erdal’s league, at least not when we first meet him. A professional ghostwriter, he specialises in turning the messy and insular lives of minor celebrities into readable and compelling memoirs. He is weary and cynical, as you would expect, but the man is no hack. There is real craftsmanship to what good ghostwriters do, he tells us, extracting a life story out of their subjects and then giving it a rhythm, a direction, a shape.
A successful collaboration, he argues, requires a transformation rather than mere spin.
By the end of the process, I am more them than they are. I rather enjoy this process, to be honest: the brief freedom of being someone else.’’ The relationship is not of subservience but of fusion, the ghost and the ghosted becoming one. Quite literally so. For Harris’s character, mi casa es tu casa .
I was shocked myself,’’ he recalls, the first time I heard one of my clients on television weepily describing a poignant moment from his past which was actually from my past.’’
The movers and shakers of this world are rarely the reflective ones. That’s why they need ghosts: to flesh them out.’’ The disembodied ghosts are actually in the business of giving flesh to their clients’ lives.
For Harris’s protagonist, ghostwriters are the phantom operatives who keep publishing going, like the unseen workers beneath Walt Disney World’’. When he is offered a chance to ghost the memoirs of Britain’s former prime minister Adam Lang, he is apprehensive but says yes anyway, sensing that he is about to become an A- list ghost.
With the publication of The Ghost , British media went wild with speculation that Lang is Tony Blair and the book a trial by thriller’’ of the man Harris once publicly and emphatically declared to be Britain’s great white hope.
Harris is a well- known political commentator and journalist whose close relationship with Blair led to him being chosen as the main chronicler of the former leader’s triumphant ascent into government. His disenchantment with Blair’s government is equally well known, as is the fact that it was the war in Iraq and Britain’s intimate relationship with the US that prompted it. It was Harris, after all, who penned those famous words of damnation: There is something truly loathsome about the modern Labour Party.’’
And indeed it is not much of a stretch to see Blair in the young, fit and telegenic Lang, whose genius is to refresh and elevate the cliches of politics by the sheer force of his performance’’. When another terrorist attack puts London in disarray, Lang, of course, is instantaneously in front of a camera. It was like watching some great actor in the last phase of his career, emotionally overspent, with nothing left to draw on but technique.’’
A few pages into the book, Lang is being investigated by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for handing over to the CIA for torture four British terrorist suspects.
The relationship between Britain and the US is not merely the political backdrop but the heart of The Ghost . Name me one decision that Adam Lang took as prime minister that wasn’t in the interests of the USA,’’ says one character.
Harris’s protagonist is not the fictional former PM’s first ghostwriter. His predecessor, McAra,
the sort of unappealing inadequate that is congenitally drawn to politics’’, is drowned in what seems like an accident. Our anonymous hero holds him in contempt. You’ll find a McAra in any country, in any system, standing behind any leader with a political machine to operate: a greasy engineer in the boiler room of